I must begin by confessing that this has not been an easy article to write. When I write something, once the ideas are clear in my mind, the words flow. This has not been the case when writing about the HTI. As I now look back at the task of writing this article, I realize that my difficulties have been mainly two: First and foremost, I am too close to the story I am supposed to tell. I find it difficult to write about HTI without writing about myself – and that I do not wish to do! (In Spanish, we use a common phrase about those who speak about themselves. We say: “No tiene abuela” – he/she has no grandmother – because it is your grandmother, and not you, who are supposed to speak about yourself.) My second set of difficulties has to do with my short-term memory. It may be a matter of old age, or it may be a common failing of historians (or it may be both!); but I find it easier to date something that happened centuries ago than to provide exact dates for events during the last 50 years.
On the other hand, it is a pleasure to write this difficult piece, because it gives me an opportunity to relive some of the best years of my life and to remember and acknowledge so many people who enriched my life during those years and who have made the achievements of HTI possible.
Perhaps I should begin with prehistory. We were not born in a vacuum. Long before anybody even dreamt about HTI, many paved the way for what today we celebrate. Way back before the United States invaded Mexico, in Taos, Father Antonio José Martínez was running a seminary that trained most of the priests for that area. He was the source of much resistance to the cultural colonization of Catholics in New Mexico. Many years later, in 1973, the Association of Theological Schools hired Presbyterian minister Cecilio Arrastía to work part-time exploring ways to correct the gross underrepresentation of Hispanics in North American theological education. Unfortunately, his reports, that in many ways addressed some of the crises that would later emerge, did not lead to much action. At approximately the same time, many were encouraging seminaries to develop various Hispanic programs – Orlando Costas, Rubén Armendáriz, Roy Barton, Jorge Lara Braud, Eduardo Font, and many others. In 1976, as the culmination of Arrastía’s work, several of these people, and others, met in Vandalia, OH – then the headquarters of ATS – in order to summarize his findings and make suggestions. Their proposals were discussed in several ATS seminaries, but with few concrete results.
The direct prehistory of HTI dates back to the early 1980s, when the Fund for Theological Education (FTE) on the basis of a grant from the Trull Foundation, in Tres Palacios, Texas, began a Hispanic doctoral program. It was at this time that I became involved with the prehistory of HTI. I was invited to cochair the selection committee with Father Virgilio Elizondo, who would become a dear friend. Had nothing emerged from those years beyond my friendship with Virgilio, I would still have considered that friendship worth all our efforts. With those initial funds, we began a small doctoral program under the aegis of the FTE – with the enthusiastic support of the Rev. Robert Martin, who was then the Director of the FTE. Very soon we realized that the meeting of the selection committee itself with the finalists for the small number of fellowships available was in itself valuable, and should not be limited to the administrative process. We therefore turned the meeting of the candidates with the selection committee into a seminar. As I recall, the first such seminar took place at the Mexican-American Cultural Center (MACC), which Virgilio had founded. Some of the papers presented there were published in Apuntes. The awardees of that time are now mostly retired or about to retire, after long and fruitful careers. Several of them have played important roles as pioneers in Latinx theology, and as mentors, committee members, and staff of HTI.
Meanwhile, based on the experience of the work that had been done thanks to the initial funding from the Trull Foundation, the FTE approached the Pew Charitable Trusts, which responded that they would need a study of the state and needs of Hispanic theological education before responding to any request. At that point, the Director of the FTE, Dr. Oscar McCloud, called me with a request that I conduct that study. I suppose part of the reason for this was that I had done two studies on theological studies in the Caribbean and northern Latin America for the Ninth Province of the Episcopal Church and the Church of the Province of the West Indies. These had been followed by another study for the Episcopal Church on leadership training in New York City and its environs. At any rate, I agreed to conduct the study on behalf of the FTE.
Along the course of the study, it was determined that there were two main factors that precluded Latinas and Latinos from entering advanced theological studies, and from finishing them once they had begun. The first of these two, quite predictably, was financial in nature. Obviously, this reflected the high level of poverty and economic straits in the Latino community. A number of those interviewed as possible candidates for further studies commented that they were the first ones in the family to obtain a bachelor’s degree, and that this had been done thanks to the sacrifice of the whole family. They therefore did not feel free to pursue a career that would not allow them to do the same for younger siblings. Surprisingly, however, the second factor was almost as important, and had to do with the lack of community that students felt in academic environments, and the lack of points of contact between what they were studying and the life and concerns of their own communities. (A third factor that should be mentioned had to do with church authorities needing Hispanic seminary graduates to fill pulpits and parishes, and therefore discouraging them from further studies.)
A subject that appeared repeatedly in my conversations with students, pastors, professors, and church leaders was the yearning that some felt to have a Hispanic seminary that would bring together most Latinx students and professors, to provide them with an education that was more in touch with their context. By the end of the study, I was convinced that this was not only unfeasible at the time, but also unwise, and instead proposed that there be a Hispanic Summer Program (HSP) that would actually bring together as many of the Latinx students as possible, to study under Hispanic professors, and to have experiences of worship reflecting the best of each tradition present. The first session of the HSP took place at Andover-Newton Theological Seminary in 1989.
On the basis of this study, the FTE returned to the Pew Charitable Trusts, and received a first grant of $1.4 million. This included, besides funding for the HSP, funding for both a doctoral and a masters fellowship program. The doctoral program would include both fellowships and networking. All of these programs would be led by a new staff person at FTE. The FTE then named Dr. Benjamin Alicea to fill that position – which he did creatively and efficiently until the conclusion of Pew’s funding of FTE.
The Pew Charitable Trusts, under the direction of Dr. Joel Carpenter, and with the able and visionary leadership of the Rev. Daniel Cortes, not only continued supporting the FTE Hispanic Program through several funding cycles, but also expanded its outreach in Latinx theological education. A result of these interests was the founding of the Asociación para la Educación Teológica Hispana (AETH), which was founded in 1991, and sought—and still seeks—to take into account and bring together Hispanic theological education at all levels and in various venues.
Eventually, the leaders of the Pew Charitable Trusts let us know that they would no longer continue funding the FTE; but they would be willing to consider a similar fellowship program under a different aegis. This caused grave concern among those of us who were committed to the fellowship program that FTE had been managing, for even if we were able to set up a new program there would be a hiatus during which much of the impetus already gained would be lost. Therefore, with support from the Pew Trusts, a committee was named to develop a newly conceived and differently organized fellowship program, while still keeping not only the fellowships themselves, but also the networking that had been so important in the previous program. With funds from Pew, a planning committee was organized with Dr. Ana María Pineda, of Santa Clara University, and myself as cochairs. The committee met in all haste, and after several meetings and devising the outline of the program Dr. Edwin Hernández, at that point at Notre Dame University, was entrusted with writing a new proposal.
The new agency, to be called the Hispanic Theological Initiative (HTI), would include and expand the networking element of the previous program. Now awardees would not only receive fellowship funds, but would also have senior Latinx scholars appointed as mentors to work with them and with their schools. Awardees would also be provided with a number of venues for networking, have editorial guidance by from professional academic religious editors, and in general become much more of a cohesive group with shared experiences and dreams.
(The HSP was not included in this new grant proposal, because a different route was followed to continue its existence. A consortium of theological schools and seminaries was formed that provided the funds necessary for continuing the HSP. Since the most difficult hurdle for the continuation of the HSP at that point was the need for management services – office space, staff, record-keeping, accounting, planning the annual sessions, etc. – this became the responsibility of AETH. At this point, leaving for a moment the history the HTI, it should be pointed out that HSP would not have been able to continue without those early years of administration by AETH, and that a later time, when AETH was in crisis, it survived only thanks to its task as administering HSP. Eventually, both agencies or programs continued and flourished.)
Back to HTI and its initial organization, following the advice of the planning committee, a proposal ably drafted by Dr. Edwin Hernández, then at the University of Notre Dame, was presented as a grant request from Emory University to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Once the grant was approved, and I was named the Executive Director of HTI (on a 15%-time basis!). In truth, it was Dr. Daisy Machado who, as Program Director of HTI, managed most of the program. She came to HTI from the faculty of Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, where she had been teaching, and moved to Atlanta to head the emerging HTI program. That first grant included fellowships both for doctoral and for master’s degree students, but the latter were eventually discontinued, and HTI continued only as a doctoral program. Dr. Machado worked not only in administering the program, but also in giving it much of the shape that it has to this day. With her leadership, the first class of HTI awardees was selected and announced (1996).
Eventually, it was decided to move the officers of the HTI to Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS), where they currently are. The next grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts was made through PTS, which also provided significant logistical and other support to the HTI. (Dr. Machado returned to Brite – and later to Lexington Theological Seminary, and to Union Theological Seminary in New York City.) At that point, Dr. Zaida Maldonado Pérez – an alumna of both the HSP and the FTE doctoral program who was teaching at the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico, was hired to take Dr. Machado’s role as Program Director. Technically, I continued as the Executive Director during the transition period. After that transition, I left the staff of HTI, and Dr. Maldonado Pérez became the Executive Director, with the Rev. Joanne Rodríguez as Program Director. Eventually, after years of service and building a network, Dr. Maldonado Pérez returned to teaching, now at Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. The Rev. Rodríguez took her place as Executive Director. She has been leading the program to new heights ever since.
All this time, most major funding for the HTI came from the Pew Charitable Trusts, with the support of PTS, as well as a number of donations from alumni, friends, and others. However, it was clear that the interests of the Pew Trusts were moving in a different direction than theological education, and that soon they would discontinue funding the HTI. Without such funding, it seemed almost impossible for the HTI to survive. A small task force of people who had been involved with the HTI for a long time was formed to discuss what route to take.
When the task force gathered at PTS, there seemed to be little hope for the continued existence of HTI. After some discussion, Dr. Daniel Aleshire, then President of the Association of Theological Schools, made a wise suggestion. He pointed out that we were doing two things: on the one hand, we were a fellowship program; on the other, we were providing students with a different sort of support with our mentoring, networking, editorial help, and other elements in the program. These two were equally important and necessary, but the largest expense was the fellowships themselves. If at that point we insisted on doing both, this would probably mean closing the program altogether. Was there any way that we could separate the two, and focus our attention on continuing the mentoring, networking, and other similar components of the program until such a time as we could restore the fellowship grants?
Aleshire’s suggestion meant that what we immediately needed was to find a way to continue operating the office, and then, throughout the work of that office after the support of friends, find ways to continue the mentoring and networking, while creating a structure that in the future might make it possible to restore the fellowship program. Somebody (I think it was myself, but I am not certain) suggested that we ask PTS to support the overhead – personnel, space, logistical support, etc. – so that HTI could focus on the mentoring and networking aspect of its work and find support for it. In the discussion, it immediately became apparent that the best way to find such support would be to form a consortium, perhaps after the model of the HSP. However, to develop such a consortium we needed to have an office and staff to recruit schools, reach agreements, provide and organize services, etc., and this would only be possible with the support of PTS. I volunteered to speak with Dr. Thomas Gillespie, then President of PTS, to float the idea that PTS would support the HTI overhead. There was much skepticism among our ranks, but also much expectation. I never told Dr. Gillespie, but one of my memories is that Dr. Aleshire and I had a sort of mock rehearsal where he asked questions, raised objections, etc., as if he were the President of PTS, and I tried to convince him. After a while, I called the President’s office and asked for an appointment. Dr. Gillespie was surprisingly supportive of the idea. Indeed, he needed no convincing. I was soon able to contact the rest of the committee and tell them that I thought we could begin to think ahead. On his part, Dr. Gillespie secured confirmation on this commitment from the Board of Trustees of the Seminary. Meanwhile, the Rev. Rodríguez was making use of the contacts that she and HTI had developed over the years, to begin building a consortium. Thus was the HTIC born – the Hispanic Theological Initiative Consortium.
The HTIC continued growing, both in numbers and in the commitment of its members. Eventually, funds for granting fellowships were raised from various quarters – most noticeably, from the Lilly Endowment, Inc. However, this is a story that many others know much better than I do, and which I leave for them to tell.
As I now look back at the entire process, I see the providential hand of God in that, whenever it seemed that all paths were closed, new ways were opened. I also see the enormous change that the HTI and the HTIC have brought about. Back in the early years when the process began, when I was teaching at Emory, I could find no other tenured Latinx faculty in any other Protestant seminary in the country – not even anybody on a tenure-track. Then, as the FTE program developed, there was a handful of us. It was the same few faces and close friends that we always saw at places such as the assemblies of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. Today, there are many whom I have never met, and about whom I only know through the communications of the HTIC and other similar means. In some ways, I miss the old days when I knew everybody. But it is also good to see a new future opening before new generations!
What is happening these days that I find most exciting? First of all, as is obvious, the growing numbers of scholars and teachers, and their increasing impact on the institutions of theological education as well as on the church and society. But then, I am also excited by the vast number of these scholars and teachers who are “organic intellectuals” – who are not just interested in their disciplines and in being acknowledged as outstanding scholars, but are also committed to seeking peace and justice, to share their knowledge with the less fortunate, to promote faith communities that also have a clear vision of a new shape for all of society. I am also encouraged that this takes concrete form in the growing collaboration among the HTI, the HSP, and the AETH, three siblings from the same womb – perhaps I should say two sisters and a brother, because in Spanish “Iniciativa” (HTI) and “Asociación” (AETH) are feminine, while “Programa” (HSP) is masculine – that have much to contribute to one another. HTIC students make renewed contacts with the emerging leadership of Latinx churches and communities by attending and teaching at the HSP and by internships with AETH. HSP students meet HTI awardees and alumni, and see in them encouraging role models. AETH members bridge the possible gap between academic scholarship and grass-roots communities.
What will the future bring? Frankly, I do not know. But I do know that the One who has guided us this far will still continue guiding us, till we reach the promised